I realize that while I keep mentioning “training” and my future “work” as a volunteer, I haven’t been entirely clear on what any of that actually means or entails. There is a very good reason for this: I am still figuring it out.
I was assigned to Peace Corps Guatemala in March as a Municipal Development Volunteer and was given a great booklet with something like three pages of things the position “might entail”. I read through the booklet, became overwhelmed, decided it’d all become clear once I got here and started google image searching Guatemala instead.
August came quickly and I wondered (slightly panicked) if I was the only one who got on the plane without a clue as to what “Municipal Development Advisor” actually meant. I wasn’t.
To really understand why I’m here, we first need a little historical background. Thirty-six years of civil strife ended on December 26, 1996 with the signing of the Peace Accords, finally bringing an end to a chaotic and horrifyingly violent period in the country’s history. This time period was fraught with uncertainty, saw little investment and no coherent plans for the future of the nation. Governmental power was centralized in the capital where the powerful and wealthy lived and rural communities, when their indigenous populations weren’t being manipulated or abused, were overlooked. (Clearly, I am skimming over a topic that fills books and books and may never be entirely understood.)
With the Peace Accords signed, attention was finally turned to the marginalized communities living without basic services and infrastructure. Resulting legislation and restructuring has attempted to decentralize power and encourage citizen participation at the local level. However, this endeavor has met a variety of obstacles. First, decades of war have left a mark on the population. Violence created a culture of fear and suppressed local activism. While the fear has subsided the effects linger and cultivation of leaders and community involvement remains a particularly difficult task. Second, the country lacks professionals adequately equipped to carry out effective decentralization. You’ll find directors of offices without any education or experience relating to their position. Which is related to the third obstacle: corruption. Just about all municipalities are plagued with some form of corruption, further hindering the development of local governance.
So, all this brings me to the Three Goals of Peace Corps Mission. Though, we’re just going to go over the first one right now (Because I’m pretty sure I’ve lost most readers by now. Except my Dad. Hi Dad!).
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
This goal, in and of itself, answers a lot of the “Why am I here?” question. First of all, Guatemala wants me here. They invited me, based on my experience in community organizing, group management and my studies in public administration to come and work in one of their municipalities and aid the offices in becoming more effective, efficient and inclusive. I am here to share my skills in order to better equip government workers and foster community activism.
Yes, that is still really vague. And I wish I could be more specific. If I were an agriculture volunteer I would be able to tell you that I am going to be planting X number of community gardens and helping train communities in sustainable growing practices. If I were a healthy schools volunteer I would be able to tell you that I am here to work in classrooms and certify completion of state mandated health requirements.
But no two municipalities are the same. They are all at different levels of development and the needs of the office I get assigned to will dictate my work. I could be training office workers in computer, planning and managing skills. I could be spending most days with community groups and teaching them about the importance of activism. I could be partnering with NGOs to bring support to municipal projects. It is all open ended and subject to change* and I’m sure that none of this actually answered the questions my friends have regarding what I’m doing here. However, I have two years to work out the details, so I’ll have to get back to you.
*This is particularly important during my cycle as elections will take place next year, right about midway through service. Most mayors will change and with them most municipal workers. I may have to start completely over.